In the second book of the Politics, Aristotle asks whether it is a good thing to encourage changes in society. Should people be offered rewards for inventing some change in the traditional laws? No, he writes, because this would lead to instability and unnecessary tampering with what is working well. Should we, on the other hand, listen to those who wish to keep ancestral traditions fixed and immune from criticism? No again—for if we reason well we can make progress in lawmaking, just as we do in other arts and sciences. Aristotle illustrates his point with examples drawn both from his own society and from the city of Cyme, in Asia Minor:

The customs of former times might be said to be too simple and barbaric. For Greeks used to go around armed with swords; and they used to buy wives from one another; and there are surely other ancient customs that are extremely stupid. (For example, in Cyme there is a law about homicide, that if a man prosecuting a charge can produce a certain number of witnesses from among his own relations, the defendant will automatically be convicted of murder.) In general, all human beings seek not the way of their ancestors, but the good.

Aristotle’s conclusion, here and elsewhere, is that change should not be too easy. Traditions embody many years of many people’s effort and thought; and it is likely that no deeply held view will have failed to get something right. Traditions (both popular and philosophical) should, he believed, be the philosopher’s starting point, and should be sensitively examined as guides to ethical truth.

On the other hand, law should also allow some latitude for people to criticize and make changes when they decide on reflection that change is called for. Sometimes these modifications will apply an existing principle to a new and unforeseen circumstance—as when a government takes account of its existing obligations to provide food for all its citizens in order to grapple with the special challenge posed by a famine or a migration of new settlers.1 Sometimes the principles themselves may be modified, in the light of reflection about concrete experiences and other principles—as would happen if the citizens of Cyme gave up their homicide law after deciding that it relied too much on bad evidence and did not fit well with other principles they held concerning justice and the good human life.

Aristotle’s reflections about justice and legal change expose a deep and pervasive problem, which is central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent book. It is difficult, now as then, to think clearly about the tensions between tradition and critical reasoning that arise within a single society—as when Cymeans argue about the merits of their ancient legal code—and even more difficult to think clearly about issues of justice that arise in conflicts between different and opposed traditions. When one does try to reason on such questions, Aristotle’s problem arises: How can one recognize the value of traditional thought and still be able to say, as he says: “This custom is barbaric”; “This law is extremely stupid”? The problem is made no simpler if one recognizes, as Aristotle does, that in any society the standards of practical reasoning—reasoning about what to do and how to choose—are themselves taught within a tradition, and are often closely linked to the tradition’s other evaluations.

The problem is made vastly more complex if one acknowledges, as Aristotle did not, that traditions are embodied in languages and conceptual schemes that cannot be neatly translated into one another, that each tradition carves up the world of human experience in somewhat different ways. For example, the ancient Greeks (before and including Aristotle) had no concept exactly corresponding to the Christian concept of the “will.” They analyzed human action by referring to various different types of reasoning, perceiving, and desiring. This makes it difficult to compare Greek and Christian thought on many ethical issues in which such conceptual differences arise.

Moral philosophy has sometimes dealt with the variety of ethical traditions shown us by history and anthropology by simply ignoring them, and by seeking, as some Kantians and utilitarians have done, principles of such high generality that they do not seem to be linked to any tradition whatever. But recently there has been increasing dissatisfaction with this approach among philosophers, on the grounds that it is simply too remote from concrete human experience. And there has been increasing interest in investigating, once again, the ancient Greek notion of virtue, which seems to promise the basis for an ethical view that will, like Aristotle’s, show respect for history and for people’s concrete experience, whether of friendship, or fear, or social and civic life, while still making room for critical rational argument. A number of contemporary moral philosophers, including Philippa Foot and Bernard Williams, have contributed to this renewal of interest in the Aristotelian approach to ethics.2 But one of the most widely influential defenders of the ancient approach has been Alasdair MacIntyre.


In his influential book After Virtue (1981), MacIntyre argued that the language of contemporary ethical debate is in hopeless disorder. Lacking the firm guidance of shared agreements about moral standards, lacking even a common moral language, we argue past one another, MacIntyre claimed, hurling at our opponents uprooted fragments of once vital ethical traditions. We believe that we can make some progress in arguments about which actions are “just” or “reasonable.” But we do not realize that our arguments, and the terms we use to make them, are rootless, lacking connection to traditional beliefs and stories (such as, for example, Homeric stories about the justice and injustice of the gods) that alone give the moral terms a society uses a definite point and application. And because our arguments are rootless in this way, they are doomed to incoherence and to failure.

MacIntyre then vividly contrasted the contemporary cacophony with a portrait of the ethics of virtue in ancient Athens, where very often there was, according to MacIntyre, no need for ethical questioning, since shared agreements had made many moral choices as obvious as the choice of a next move in a game played according to well-defined rules. When questions did arise, the presence of a bedrock of agreement made the ensuing debate limited, well defined, and capable of producing a clear solution.

Could the contemporary world return to the ethical situation of the Greeks, as MacIntyre understood it? That was the question with which After Virtue ended. It was evident that MacIntyre saw in such a return the only hope for ethical order; and yet equally evident that he had at that time no clear view of how such a return might take place. He called for “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” And his last sentence declares, obscurely, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” But this left a number of questions unanswered. In particular, would the new norms he called for be simply local in each case, and valid only relatively to local traditions, or would there also be standards of rational justification that we could use as reasons for preferring some local traditions to others?

The reader of After Virtue might easily have concluded from MacIntyre’s references to local communities that the solution he favored would lie in some form of cultural relativism, in which the only appropriate standards for resolving ethical questions would derive their validity from local traditions and practices, and no appeal across or beyond the differing practices would be possible. MacIntyre’s new book shows us that such a conclusion would have been a serious error. He now announces his deep opposition to cultural relativism and his determination to follow the example of Aristotle by providing a historically sensitive account of the way in which people should go about justifying their ethical ideas, especially their ideas of justice. And he gives his reader, in no uncertain terms, answers to the questions left over from After Virtue. The “new St. Benedict” is none other than St. Thomas Aquinas, who, according to MacIntyre, rationally justified Augustinian Catholicism by incorporating within it responses to the challenges presented by Aristotle’s ethical views.

For MacIntyre the norms of Thomist Catholicism derive their status from their ability to withstand dialectical examination through the ages. A major task of his book is to provide an account of how one tradition of thought challenges another, and how the rational superiority of one competing view over another can be established. But Catholic norms, as MacIntyre’s account unfolds, also derive their status from the political authority of the Church, which imposes agreement concerning basic principles, subduing the disobedient human will. And MacIntyre clearly approves of the inculcation of such agreements through a system of education controlled by religious authority. He announces that he is now an “Augustinian Christian,” and speaks favorably of religious tests for university appointments. (He himself has recently resigned his appointment at Vanderbilt University, a secular institution, to take up a chair at Notre Dame, an institution whose position on the relationship between orthodoxy and education is probably a good deal more liberal than the position taken in MacIntyre’s book.)

To understand the relationship between MacIntyre’s defense of reasoned argument and his sympathy with Church authority, and to discover how he strikes the balance between them, are evidently important tasks for any reader of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? But since MacIntyre develops his general ideas through a close study of four traditions, this task must begin with an understanding of that historical account.


MacIntyre identifies four traditions as especially important in the history of Western ethical thought. (He tells us that his project is incomplete because it does not include a study of either non-Western traditions or of the Jewish tradition.) The four are: the tradition of ancient Greek thought about virtue that began with Homer and culminated in Aristotle; the tradition of Christian thought, as exemplified in Augustine, and as modified by Saint Thomas Aquinas to make room for the insights of Aristotle; the moral tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, including such obscure thinkers as James Stair and Andrew Fletcher, in which MacIntyre finds a close Protestant relative of Aquinas’s view; and, finally, the traitor to these three venerable and promising traditions, the tradition of modern liberalism, as begun in the work of David Hume, for whose life and thought MacIntyre has undisguised contempt.

We begin in the ancient Greek world, a world, according to MacIntyre, of clearly demarcated social roles, in which citizens do not need to deliberate over which principles to follow, since the proper behavior for each role is so well defined. According to MacIntyre, “classical Greeks, like Greeks of the archaic period, for the most part understood the forms and structures of their communities as exemplifying the order of dike,” or justice; “and what gave literary expression to that understanding above all else was the recitation and the hearing and the reading of the Homeric poems.” The notion of justice used by the ancient Greeks, he argues,

presupposed that the universe had a single fundamental order, an order structuring both nature and society, so that the distinction which we mark by contrasting the natural and the social cannot as yet be expressed.

Zeus and the human kings he empowers to enforce justice preside over an order that is made up of

hierarchically ordered social rules. To know what is required of you is to know what your place is within that structure and to do what your role requires.

Within the system inherited from Homer, however, tensions arise: in particular, a troublesome tension between the pursuit of the “goods of effectiveness” (instrumental goods such as money and property, it would seem) and the “goods of excellence” (the forms of virtuous activity, such as acting in a just or moderate way). MacIntyre describes various attempts to resolve these tensions, giving highest praise to Aristotle for his convincing arguments against the vice of acquisitiveness. He argues that according to Aristotle practical wisdom presupposes a correct understanding of the ultimate ends of human life. A person who is merely clever at pursuing self-interest will not be wise, because he will lack such understanding. But for a person who has the correct understanding of ends, MacIntyre argues, reasoning will have something like the simplicity of the Homeric model.

According to MacIntyre, whose account here is unfortunately oversimple,3 we can find such admirable simplicity in Aristotle’s doctrine of the “practical syllogism,” a form of deductive reasoning that immediately precedes action and also terminates in action. For example (to rely, for a moment, on MacIntyre’s reconstruction), in considering whether or not to eat a certain light and nutritious salad that is put before me, I would start with a premise stating what particular good is at stake: “Eating light and nutritious food at lunchtime is good for everyone.” I would then, as a second premise, note that a certain situation is at hand that bears on the good in question: “It is now lunchtime, and this salad that has just been placed before me offers light and nutritious food.” The “conclusion” drawn takes the form of an action: I eat the salad.4 MacIntyre contends that the conclusion of such syllogisms—always an action, according to Aristotle—will follow without any great difficulty once a person has the correct overall view of human ends and perceives the concrete situation he is in. So more or less all human action in a well-run polis will have this easy and automatic character, and prolonged deliberation will be unnecessary.

MacIntyre’s next chapters examine the response of Augustinian Christianity to the challenge presented by this Aristotelian view. Augustine, in effect, denied that Aristotelian practical reason could deal adequately with the central questions facing human beings: only faith in God could do so. For MacIntyre, Thomas Aquinas took one of the most important steps in the progress of rational thought when he incorporated Aristotelian elements into an essentially Christian scheme of belief inherited from Saint Augustine. In this section, to which I will return, MacIntyre’s interpretation of Aquinas places heavy emphasis on the limits of human reason and the central importance of divine grace.

We turn next to a fascinating account of the moral teaching of the Scottish Enlightenment. MacIntyre says little about the debate between the Catholic and the Scottish traditions. Instead, in defending such little-known Scottish thinkers as Stair and Fletcher, he seems to find in the Scottish views a tradition whose achievements parallel, within Protestantism, the achievements of Aquinas within Catholicism. In particular, the Scottish tradition insists on the importance of rational debate (reacting against forms of Calvinism that denied this); but it insists, too, that rational debate must be carried on within a setting of religious homogeneity. Like the Aristotelian and the Thomist traditions, it defines practical rationality according to its account of what is good, and does so in such a way that the unlimited pursuit of self-interest could not count as rational. And like Aquinas, but unlike Aristotle, the Scottish teachers insisted on religious orthodoxy as a necessary condition of practical wisdom. They denied university appointments in philosophy—central in their idea of moral education—to those who did not share their basic religious agreements—and MacIntyre insists, discussing Hume’s failure to get the chair in Edinburgh, that they were entirely right to do so.

Indeed, MacIntyre attacks Hume as a traitor to the Scottish cause who deserted to the corrupt ways of English culture—which, in MacIntyre’s scathing portrait, included above all a defense of the unlimited pursuit of self-interest. According to MacIntyre, Hume believes that reasoning cannot make us initiate actions; the ultimate moving force in any action is some desire or passion. Nor for Hume does reasoning have a role to play in answering the question, “What ends shall I pursue? What will count for me as the elements of a good life?” Such questions are, in effect, answered already by the desires I happen to have. So Hume’s views of rationality and virtue are defective, according to MacIntyre, because he does not see that practical wisdom must include the wise selection of ends, and cannot be independent of that process.

This mistake by Hume MacIntyre claims to be the source of a similar error in modern liberalism generally. Without giving any serious attention to Kant or the German tradition, MacIntyre accuses virtually all of modern liberalism of the faults he imputes to Hume. He claims that all liberal thinkers define rational behavior as behavior tending to “maximize” self-interest, understood as the satisfaction of desires. This is the thinnest part of the book. Its failure to look seriously at the influence of Kant’s very different conception of reason on liberal thinkers such as John Rawls makes it largely useless as an account of current moral philosophy. And the account of English thought suffers by comparison with the account in After Virtue. MacIntyre’s hostility to English thought and social life is now so bitter that Jane Austen, one of the heroines of After Virtue, no longer has a place in his argument.

MacIntyre ends with a detailed account of traditions and of the languages in which they are embedded. Here, in keeping with his new emphasis on divine grace and on self-evident first principles, MacIntyre quietly drops After Virtue’s interesting account of the importance of story-telling in giving moral terms their meaning. This was a particularly attractive feature of the earlier book, even for many readers who did not accept After Virtue’s pessimistic conclusions. Nothing of comparable power has replaced it. MacIntyre concludes by showing in detail how a confrontation between different traditions takes place. This account is meant to buttress the claim, which he reasserts, that the Augustinian Christian tradition, as modified by Aquinas, has established its rational superiority.

Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is a difficult book to read. Muddy and overlong, it lacks After Virtue’s crisp prose, and it is far less clearly argued. It is very difficult to extract from the text a clear account of its central concepts, such as the nature of “rational justification,” the relationship between argument and authority, and the value of local, rather than universal, norms. In part this is because the book is full of maddening inconsistencies. MacIntyre attacks England for attempting to influence the local traditions of Scotland, but he praises the Pope for exercising moral authority over the recalcitrant bishops of Ireland. Hume is a traitor because he left his native Scottish traditions behind and moved to London, but no account is taken of the local traditions of Thrace, which Aristotle left to come to Athens; or those of Northern Africa, which Augustine left to come to Rome; or those of Southern Italy, which Aquinas left (much against the will of his family, who tried to kidnap him) to join the Dominicans in Paris.

No moral system has exterminated local traditions more relentlessly and more successfully than Christianity, especially in its Roman Catholic version. And yet, even while continuing to defend the integrity and authority of local traditions, MacIntyre gives his allegiance to Catholic Christianity. Again, he dismisses the English language as a rootless, traditionless, “internationalized” language, because it is used to translate from and to so many local languages; but the Latin of the Church receives no similar criticism. Furthermore, the same criteria that supposedly show liberalism to be an ignominious failure are taken, where Aquinas’s view is concerned, as evidence that it is a tradition as yet “incomplete” and evolving.

But on one issue it seems important to try to pin MacIntyre down. For if, as I have suggested, a central task for contemporary moral theory is to construct an account of the way in which moral beliefs can be justified, an account that would be attentive to history while still retaining the capacity to criticize local traditions, then there is reason to believe that close study of MacIntyre’s book will repay the effort. For the book sets out to develop just such an account, emphasizing the fundamental importance of traditions embodied in history while making a case against cultural relativism.5 How, then, does MacIntyre combine his view that all argument takes place inside traditions with his claim to be able to justify a single tradition, the Catholic tradition, as rationally superior to others?

MacIntyre insists that people cannot successfully justify their moral beliefs in detachment from actual ways of life, as embodied in ethical traditions. When we compare different standards of justice, for example, we must bear in mind that each belongs to a complex cultural tradition that embodies, as well, an account of what is reasonable and what good reasoning is. We cannot understand how the Greeks thought about justice, for example, without seeing how their conception is linked to their understanding of the relationship between reason and desire. Hume’s very different account of reason helps to explain why he adopts a very different view of justice. Since any argument about justice must employ some view of what reasoning is like, it would appear that there is no neutral standard by which this conflict, and others like it, can be adjudicated.

And yet, MacIntyre argues, people can and do rationally justify their beliefs—particularly when the partisans of two traditions challenge one another. When such a confrontation takes place, he argues, one view will frequently succeed in establishing itself as superior to the other and will win acceptance from the partisans of the other view. The triumphant view does this by explaining how to solve problems that had arisen within the other view, and showing at the same time that it can incorporate virtually everything in the rival view that does survive dialectical scrutiny. The point can be illustrated by a scientific example. The scientific tradition based upon the Copernican heliocentric view of the universe demonstrated its superiority to Aristotelian physics by showing how it could solve problems left unsolved in geocentric thinking. At the same time, it was able to incorporate and preserve elements in the Aristotelian tradition that did survive scrutiny: much of Aristotle’s biology, for example, could be retained. MacIntyre’s claim is that ethical debate can evolve in much the same way.

For MacIntyre traditions are worthy of our respect and allegiance only when they display a respect for this sort of argument, or this sort of contest between differing arguments. A good tradition is “more than a coherent movement of thought”: it must display self-awareness in its confrontation with challenges both from those who are adherents of the tradition and from those who are outside it, as its members seek “a rational way through or around (its) encounters with radically different traditions.” So if Aquinas’s view has won out over its rivals, as MacIntyre alleges, this should mean that it has identified deficiencies in its rivals’ views—deficiencies that were to some extent perceived as such within the rival views—and shown how it can do better, using good arguments. MacIntyre does believe that each tradition will to some extent go by its own idea of what counts as a good argument—for example, Aristotle and Hume, as he presents them, have very different views of what reasoning is like and what it can establish. But he also plainly believes that a successful argument for the superiority of one tradition to another must be persuasive not only to those already convinced, but to adherents of the rival tradition as well. In so arguing MacIntyre clearly has respect for standards in argument, such as logical consistency, that are not as such tied to any one tradition.

On the other hand, alongside this serious commitment to self-awareness and to dialectical argument, we also find, in MacIntyre’s account of tradition, an equally deep and equally explicit interest in ethical certainty—in having certain fixed rules and agreements that make the choice of what to do an automatic matter, for which explicit reasoning is not necessary. The ancient Greek conception of justice appeals to him because it is (so he says) “an expression of some unitary order informing and structuring human life.” And the Greek polis seems to him vastly superior to modern states because it is (again, so he says) “already provided with an ordering of goods, goods to be achieved by excellence within specific and systematic forms of activity, integrated into an overall rank-order.” MacIntyre’s admiration for such a hierarchy of values and activities leads him to argue that it is only within a fixed system of agreements of this kind that rational questioning about the good life can coherently go on. In perhaps the most revealing metaphor in his book, he compares the well-run ethical community to a hockey game:

A hockey player in the closing seconds of a crucial game has an opportunity to pass to another member of his or her team better placed to score a needed goal. Necessarily, we may say, if he or she has perceived and judged the situation accurately, he or she must immediately pass. What is the force of this “necessarily” and this “must”? It exhibits the connection between the good of that person qua hockey player and member of that particular team and the action of passing, a connection such that were such a player not to pass, he or she must either have falsely denied that passing was for their good qua hockey player or have been guilty of inconsistency or have acted as one not caring for his or her good qua hockey player and member of that particular team. That is to say, we recognize the necessity and immediacy of rational action by someone inhabiting a structured role in a context in which the goods of some systematic form of practice are unambiguously ordered. And in so doing we apply to one part of our social life a conception which Aristotle applies to rational social life as such.

Here as in After Virtue,6 MacIntyre wishes to recover for the contemporary world the certainty of such an order; and clearly for him the promise of doing so is a great part of the appeal of “the universal Church,” which he calls an “order in which each human being has his or her own allotted place and his or her own allotted duties.”

On the one hand, then, we see a genuine respect in MacIntyre’s book for rational argument; on the other, a wish not to have argument about the basic structure of the ethical community. How are we to put the two aspects of his thought together? The answer to this question emerges, I believe, from the sections of the book dealing with Aquinas and with the Scottish Enlightenment. Here, although the details of the positions differ, the two accounts are remarkably similar with respect to the values that MacIntyre finds commendable. Both of these traditions insist on the importance of rational philosophical argument; both develop in opposition to thinkers (Augustinian and Calvinist) who seek to minimize the role of reason in human life. Yet both also insist on starting from fixed first principles. Both have a strong commitment to distinguishing orthodoxy from heresy, and they do so in a way that severely limits the direction any rational argument may take.

The Scottish thinkers hold that their first principles are self-evident to reason; but this notion of the self-evident turns out to involve an appeal to religious authority. For the people to whom first principles must be self-evident are the professors of philosophy in Scottish universities; and these professors must be certified as orthodox in religious belief in order to win appointment. In the case of Aquinas, MacIntyre attacks interpreters who argue that the natural law can be known by reason alone. Without God’s grace and revelation, natural law would lack authority; at the same time, for natural law to be accepted, the Church must use its authority to set bounds to rational debate.

Nonetheless, MacIntyre holds that the tradition that culminates in Aquinas’s thought has demonstrated its rational superiority over other traditions. If this claim is to be made consistent with his general account of the way in which a position shows its superiority to its rivals, then dialectical reasoning ought to be able to scrutinize the theorists’ system as a whole and to compare it favorably to its rivals, and to do so with self-awareness and an awareness of alternatives. Such reasoning ought to be able to show to people who hold different views the superior value of Aquinas’s position for human life, and to do so with convincing arguments. In order to see to what extent this promise is fulfilled in MacIntyre’s account, we must, then, try to understand on what grounds he believes the view of Aquinas to be superior to the traditions that both preceded and followed it.

How, then, does MacIntyre’s Aquinas—described as a follower of Augustine who has incorporated into Augustinian Christianity certain elements of Aristotelianism—demonstrate the rational superiority of his position to that of Aristotle? The astonishing fact is that, in this lengthy book about Aristotelianism and rational justification, this question is never seriously asked. MacIntyre gives an interesting account of why Aristotle’s thought was rationally superior to that of his predecessors in the Greek tradition. He gives reasons why an Augustinianism modified by an infusion of Aristotelian dialectic is superior to Augustinianism alone. But how do we get from Aristotle to Augustine? The book is silent. We are simply transported into the Christian era, and, as if we are Christians already, we are asked to imagine the challenges the Christian position faces from its pagan adversaries.

It is no small task to show someone who finds Aristotle’s account of human society persuasive that the Augustinian view is superior. For, as MacIntyre describes it, the Augustinian view takes as its central premise the doctrine of original sin: the view that the fundamental relation of the human will to the moral law is one of disobedience, and that sexual desire is the basic form of that disobedience. (MacIntyre does not emphasize the sexual aspect of original sin, but he tells us that he endorses Augustine’s account of the doctrine; and condemnation of sexual desire is integral to Augustine’s account.)

To an Aristotelian, this entire idea would seem crazy. In fact, Aristotle says that a person who did not find sexual relations pleasant would be “far from being a human being”; and this is not meant to be a compliment. To be lacking in the desires for food, drink, and sexual relations, or in the corresponding activities, is held by Aristotle to be an ethical defect. Indeed, he also holds that human beings are naturally drawn toward virtue rather than vice, love more than repudiation—and that, given sufficient education, material support, and personal effort, most people will be able to make good and reasonable lives for themselves. How do you convince someone who thinks this way that belief in original sin represents progress in rationality?

MacIntyre, remarkably enough, never argues these questions. And yet we can find at least elements of an answer within his account of the Christian view. From the beginning of his book, MacIntyre has often suggested that the rational strength of an argument depends on its ability to secure actual agreement from most of the parties involved. This is nowhere implied in his philosophical account of how beliefs are justified, nor does it even seem to be consistent with it. But it is an important feature of many of the judgments he makes about particular cases in which people attempt to justify their views. His account of the failure of the Enlightenment, for example, assumes that a successfully justified belief is one that can “unite conviction and rational justification,” something the Enlightenment, as he sees it, could not do.

This interest in the power to secure agreement on one view or another is natural enough, given MacIntyre’s interest in forms of community in which choice will be automatic and will not require deep reflection. In his chapters on Christian belief, he implies that only an institution such as the Catholic Church, which combines reasoning with the authority to define orthodoxy and to suppress dissent, can actually bring about the desired agreement. “Men need control and restraint,” he writes, “if any measure of justice or peace is to be attained and preserved.”7

So only an institution such as the Church—and not some mere reasoner like Aristotle, sitting disenfranchised and powerless as a resident alien in Athens—could succeed in rationally justifying a set of beliefs as MacIntyre finally understands that task. It is not enough to bring forward good arguments. “Political acknowledgement” of the arguments is also required: that is to say, acknowledgement (as Aquinas writes, with MacIntyre’s approval) that “Secular power is subject to spiritual power as the body is subject to the soul.” Or, in MacIntyre’s own words, “the Pope has legitimate authority over secular rulers.” And clearly the doctrine of original sin had an important part in gaining for the Church the requisite acknowledgement of its political power. In this way, original sin seems to be “rationally justified,” according to this complex account of justification, rather different from the one that MacIntyre originally endorsed.

But what does all this have to do with reason? Why is a view justified only if its backers can beat dissenters into line? The answer seems to be: because of the fact of original sin. Political authority, MacIntyre tells us on Augustine’s behalf, is “the necessary, and in the Christian conception the divine, remedy for sin.” And “the central human experience of morality” is that “of our inability to live by it.” MacIntyre concludes that the way in which Augustine shows Aristotle’s view to be “radically defective” is by pointing to a “radical defectiveness in the natural human order.” In other words, the Catholic view, by combining the doctrine of original sin with the view that the political authority of the Church is necessary for order, is seen to be preferable because original sin is, in fact, our “central human experience.”

For the secular Aristotelian the circularity of this argument is breathtaking. And if readers consider the fact, brilliantly argued (for example) in Elaine Pagels’s recent book,8 that original sin did not seem even to Christians to be a “central experience” until the Church used it as a rationale for the exercise of Church authority, then they may begin to suspect that MacIntyre is in the grip of a world view promulgated by authority rather than by reason. They may suspect as well that he is using this view to justify perpetuating authority at the heart of human life and, indeed, at the heart of human reason. An Aristotelian would have to repudiate this way of thinking, since Aristotle insists on a strong distinction between persuasion and manipulation, reason and force. And Aristotle, in an abrupt departure from Greek cultural conventions, did not even include piety within his long list of the virtues. This probably indicates his interest in separating practical reason from religious authority, and in keeping reason, rather than such authorities, in control of the most important matters.

And yet, one might ask, isn’t MacIntyre on to something fundamental when he tells us that reason, undirected by authority, cannot construct a debate that is orderly enough to be productive? He has claimed that the only alternative to the authority he recommends is chaos, a Babel of unrelated and greedy voices. One might reply, they will at least be our own voices. And yet we would reply far more strongly if we could show that MacIntyre’s pessimism about reason is not justified, that people from different traditions could, through secular, rational debate, make progress toward a convincing picture of the good life without relying on the virtue of piety to keep the debate in order, and that such a debate could attend to and respect local traditions, in each case, while criticizing tradition in the name of the good.

We can, I believe, find a promising example of such a debate in Aristotle himself—though in aspects of Aristotle’s thought that do not figure in MacIntyre’s account. First, Aristotle did not characterize the situation of the Greek polis as MacIntyre does. He did not, that is, believe that the rational debate in which he took part was based on a set of fundamental agreements. Indeed, he tells us at the outset of the Nicomachean Ethics that, although all human beings say their goal is eudaimonia (which we might render “the good life for a human being”), they agree on nothing beyond the mere name. “As to what eudaimonia is, they are at odds”—both one person with another, it emerges, and also each person with himself. The unanimity imagined by MacIntyre never existed, so far as Aristotle can see. But he believed it is possible to provide a reasoned justification for convictions without it.

Second, Aristotle does not believe that people need to seek arguments to justify their beliefs only from within each single local tradition. He considers ideas from Persia and Sparta, from Cyme and Athens, all in an attempt to construct an account of the good human life for any and every human being. His list of virtues is intended to be international, based upon experiences that all human beings share.

Third, Aristotle never expects universal agreement. People who are ill-educated, or unloved, or hungry, or unhealthy, or subjects of tyranny, and so on—and at any time this is likely to include a large proportion of the world’s people—may not be able to listen to argument at all, much less to accept good arguments when they come forward. Aristotle’s remedy for that is not to prefer views that are capable of bringing them into line; it is to demand of politics that it supply them with what they need for the good life—with food, clean water, family love, above all an education. Rationality has a material and institutional basis; the cause of ethical defects is not inherent evil, but bad politics.

Among those who take part in rational arguments, the task of describing human virtues begins, Aristotle believes, by giving an account of the general circumstances which all human beings, as such, share, and within which their choices are all made. In the Nicomachean Ethics, the description of each virtue begins by characterizing some sphere of shared human experience. Even before we get a very precise account of it, the virtue in question—courage, for example—is provisionally defined as a stable trait of character (involving patterns of desire and thought) that is productive of good choices and responses in that sphere. One can then go on to ask more specifically what good choices in that sphere would be, and to argue about other accounts, and thus to get a more precise account of the virtue. For example, all human beings are aware of their mortality, and all experience, at some time, the fear of death. The virtue of courage will be the trait of character that enables a person stably to act and react well (however that is more precisely defined) with regard to that fear.

Again, human beings all have bodily appetites and find it at times difficult to keep them under control. The virtue of moderation can be defined as the stable trait that makes it possible for someone to do that well. Thus even if there is still much disagreement about what the best account of good choice, and therefore the virtuous trait, is, we will have a coherently ordered debate, and we will know that we are talking about the same thing.

Going through each of the spheres of human activity in this way, Aristotle gives a general account of what it is to live as a human being with both limitations and abilities. The story he tells should, he thinks, be intelligible to any human being who hears it, despite differences of language and culture. “One can see in one’s travels to distant countries,” he writes, “the experiences of recognition and affiliation that link every human being to every other human being.” And it is on this basis that he holds out hope for a persuasive inquiry into the good that is not exclusively tied to one culture or another.

Aristotle’s idea of a persuasive story of human life is only a starting point, one that is closely linked to the myths and stories people tell themselves when they ask themselves what it is to be a human being, and neither beast nor a god. But if it is possible to tell a general story in which we can all, as human beings using our imaginations, see ourselves, then MacIntyre’s pessimism about open reasoned debate is not justified.

When one considers these aspects of Aristotle’s account, one realizes, too, how silent MacIntyre has been about them—how silent, in general, about the fact that human beings have many common problems wherever they live, and also many shared capacities—humor, friendship, love, logic, a thirst for understanding. All these are to some extent understood differently by different societies; but the fact that we can understand a Homeric hero’s fear of death, or share Euripides’ perplexity about the beauty and destructive power of erotic passion, or be struck by the insights of ancient Indian thought about the nature of perception, shows us that it is not foolish to suppose that there is common ground from which secular rational inquiry into the human good can begin.

This is not to minimize the difficulties of going beyond recognition of common experiences and problems to construct common norms. At each step such an inquiry should balance the concrete experience of particular groups with an interest in what is common to all. How one might do this remains an immensely challenging question, but I see no reason to suppose that it cannot be done.9 If the doctrine of original sin, as MacIntyre interprets it, were true, the obstacles in the way of carrying out such a project would be formidable, since presumably original sin impedes the reasoning of each reasoner, as well as making it difficult for a reasoned view to win acceptance. But MacIntyre has given us no good reason to believe that doctrine is true. And unless and until we accept some such idea we do not have reason to relax our demand for good reasons, deferring to authority.

Pursuing the Aristotelian quest I have described without relying on piety is a difficult matter, but it was always likely that it would be, since human beings are on their own in a harsh and complex world. The difficulty, and the frequent loneliness, of such a search need not, and should not, cause us to long nostalgically for a unanimity that human life has never really had, or to sink for comfort into the embrace of an authority, whether religious or secular, that will give us order at the price of reason.

This Issue

December 7, 1989